on 16 Dec 2021
The updated IUCN Red List of threatened species revealed four in ten sharks and rays are now threatened with extinction. While overfishing and a lack of protection continue to be significant challenges, the impacts of climate change are catching up with the marine world at an alarming pace. Time is running out for their survival
Like never before, sharks and rays are at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Fossilised scales show that sharks or their ancestors first appeared almost 450 million years ago, or in geological terms: during the Late Ordovician period. Over aeons, there have been 3,000 documented species of sharks, with many more likely lost in the fossil record.
Today, around 500 shark species are found globally, from the deep sea to coral reefs, the open ocean, and Arctic ice. These beguiling cartilaginous fish have witnessed the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, survived multiple ice ages and continue to play an essential role in regulating marine ecosystems as apex predators.
But they’re no match for the destructive power of humans, it seems. In September this year, the IUCN – considered a global authority on the status of the natural world – released its updated Red List of threatened species, to coincide with the IUCN World Conservation Congress which ran from September 3-11 in Marseille, France.
Some 37 per cent of the world’s sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras, known together as chondrichthyan fish, are considered in danger of extinction as of 2021, up from 33 per cent seven years ago. Oceanic shark populations have dropped by a staggering 71 per cent since 1970.
The update was triggered by new research published in the journal Current Biology, which analysed almost 1,200 species of chondrichthyan fishes worldwide. This study is the second global assessment of chondrichthyan fishes, and it found double the number of threatened species as the first analysis in 2014. In terms of extinction threat, chondrichthyans now rank second among vertebrates, after amphibians.
Of all chondrichthyan fish groups, rays (the flatter, close relatives of sharks) are the most threatened overall, with 41 per cent of all assessed ray species deemed to be threatened.
The decline is due to pressures caused by continued overfishing for valuable meat and fins, pollution and climate change. Up to 100 million sharks and rays are killed each year, with some populations declining by 95 per cent due to overfishing.
“Our study reveals an increasingly grim reality” – Dr Nicholas Dulvy
Sharks are in particular danger thanks to the demand for shark fin soup, which remains a prestigious delicacy across several parts of China – despite celebrity-driven attempts to increase public awareness and an ongoing government crackdown on lavish banquets in Taiwan and Southeast Asia.
Shark finning is seen as a particularly brutal practice, as sharks are often finned alive and thrown back into the water, where they die slowly from blood loss.
Yet, the fins are still very lucrative, fetching up to US$870 per ‚Äòcatty’ (604.8g). Hong Kong is the largest shark fin importer globally, and at least 50 per cent of the world’s shark fin is traded through the Special Administrative Region, where dried fins are seen stacked in window displays. While selling and consuming shark fins is not illegal in Hong Kong, products from endangered shark species must be accompanied by a permit. However, prosecutions remain rare despite illegal trading carrying a maximum punishment of a HK$10m (US$1.3m) fine and 10 years in prison.
In 2020, the biggest shark-fin seizure in Hong Kong’s history saw a whopping 26 tonnes, mainly from endangered species, intercepted in shipments originating from Ecuador. The two consignments represented the slaughter of some 38,500 protected sharks.
It is, however, a common myth that Asia is the only place with a demand for shark products. The global trade for shark meat is larger than for only for fins, with high demand coming from Europe. A report released this year by WWF reveals that Spain is the world’s largest exporter of shark meat. The top importer of shark meat is Italy, while the EU accounts for over a fifth of the global shark-meat trade.
Many food products from sharks are mislabelled: shark meat is often sold as ‚Äòrock salmon’ in the UK, ‚Äòvitello di mare‘ (sea veal) in Italy and ‚Äòsaumonette‘ (little salmon) in France, while shortfin mako shark is sold as ‚Äòskomoro‘ (ocean fillets) in South Africa.
“Demand for shark fin is well-known as a driver for the overexploitation of sharks and rays, and fingers point at Asia, where shark fin soup consumption is highest,” Andy Cornish, leader of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s international shark and ray conservation programme, told US news site The Hill. “This new report spotlights a far larger global trade in shark and ray meat that many are unaware of.”
A downward trajectory
“The results of the [Current Biology] study are alarming,” said Dr Rima Jabado, chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Shark Specialist Group (SSG). “Overfishing continues to be the main threat to sharks, rays, and chimaeras, and current fisheries management measures are simply not enough. In less than a decade, we have gone from 25 per cent to 37 per cent of sharks, rays, and chimaeras considered threatened and having a high risk of extinction.”
Dr Nicholas Dulvy, Professor of Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Simon Fraser University, added: “On one hand, we’re pleased that chondrichthyan science contributions have doubled since our first global analysis of this kind, allowing us to assess the status of many more species with greater confidence. On the other hand, our study reveals an increasingly grim reality, with these species now making up one of the most threatened vertebrate lineages, second only to the amphibians in the risks they face. The widespread depletion of these fishes, particularly sharks and rays, jeopardises the health of entire ocean ecosystems and food security for many nations around the globe.”
Oceanic shark populations have dropped by a staggering 71% since 1970
The chondrichthyans are very susceptible to the impacts of overfishing because they typically grow slowly and do not produce many offspring. The study reveals that sharks and rays are at particular risk, as they are sought for commodities including fins, leather, oil, meat and gill plates, as well as recreational fishing. The most threatened chondrichthyan families are the sawfishes, giant guitarfish, devil rays, and pelagic (open sea) eagle rays.
The study’s authors highlight a lack of effective government action to implement scientific guidance, protect important habitats and prioritise the protection of chondrichthyan species. The authors also draw attention to a failure of governments to meet commitments made under international treaties such as CITES (the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Extinctions in Asia
Those sharks and rays found in tropical and subtropical coastal waters – typical of much of the Asia-Pacific – suffer disproportionately high threat levels compared with other species.
For example, the lost shark (Carcharhinus obsoletus) was once found in the South China Sea, but its habitat has been extensively fished for over a century, and a sighting has not been reported since 1934.
Neither the Java stingaree (Urolophus javanicus), a species of stingray endemic to Indonesia, nor the Red Sea torpedo (Torpedo suessii), a ray once found in the western Indian Ocean, have been seen for more than a century. The study concluded that all three of these Asian species should be classed as ‚Äòpossibly extinct’.
“The tropics host incredible shark and ray diversity, but too many of these inherently vulnerable species have been heavily fished for more than a century by a wide range of fisheries that remain poorly managed, despite countless commitments to improve,” says Dr Colin Simpfendorfer, Adjunct Professor at James Cook University. “As a result, we fear we will soon confirm that one or more of these species has been driven to extinction from overfishing, a deeply troubling first for marine fish.”
The loss of chondrichthyan fish is not just a loss for global biodiversity but is also damaging for ecosystems and economies. As well as luring tourists to coastal communities, many of these species have essential roles in marine food chains, helping move nutrients from the open ocean onto coral reefs and from the shallows into the deep sea. New research has also highlighted their role in carbon sequestration, which provides an important buffer against climate change.
“The alarm bells could not be ringing louder for sharks and rays,” Andy Cornish said in a WWF statement released after the IUCN Red List reassessment in September. “We are on the cusp of starting to lose this ancient group of creatures, species by species right here, right now. Starting now, we need far greater action by governments to limit fishing and bring these functionally important animals back from the brink.”
Reversing the decline
It’s not just sharks and rays facing mortal peril. Over 138,000 global species have been assessed in the past five decades for the IUCN Red List. Almost 39,000 species, or 28 per cent, are currently at risk of vanishing in the wild, while 902 have already gone extinct, as the impacts of humans’ activity on the natural world continue to increase.
While factors such as illegal trade and habitat loss have been causing damage to wildlife for decades, the impacts of climate change are now having a more significant effect than ever before. Climate change now affects 10.2 per cent of threatened chondrichthyan species due to the degradation of coral reefs and ranges shifting toward the poles as waters continue to warm up. This impact is set to increase.
However, there was positive news on the updated Red List for some species of commercially fished tuna, which are recovering following efforts to fish them more sustainably. The Atlantic bluefin tuna and albacore (longfin tuna) are no longer considered endangered, while the southern bluefin tuna has been moved from critically endangered to endangered.
“These Red List assessments demonstrate just how closely our lives and livelihoods are intertwined with biodiversity” – Dr Bruno Oberle
“Today’s IUCN Red List update is a powerful sign that, despite increasing pressures on our oceans, species can recover if states truly commit to sustainable practices,” said Dr Bruno Oberle, IUCN director-general, on the day the list was released. “States and others now gathered at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille must seize the opportunity to boost ambition on biodiversity conservation and work towards binding targets based on sound scientific data. These Red List assessments demonstrate just how closely our lives and livelihoods are intertwined with biodiversity.”
Despite global improvement at the species level, many regional tuna stocks remain severely depleted. For example, while the larger, eastern population of Atlantic bluefin tuna has increased by at least 22 per cent over the last four decades, the species’ smaller native Western Atlantic population has declined by more than half in the same period. The yellowfin tuna meanwhile continues to be overfished in the Indian Ocean.
To help endangered sharks and rays to recover, plans that help reduce mortality from fishing to near-zero are necessary. Where this is not possible, implementing catch limits, helping to reduce ‚Äúincidental‚Äù fishing mortality and protecting habitats will lessen the impacts of overfishing. It is a long road ahead.
“At the national level, fisheries and environmental authorities need to work together to stop overfishing and halt further declines,” said Cornish. “This is a pivotal moment in time. If we act now, we still have a good chance to save these predators that play such an important role in ocean health. However, if the status quo continues with slow incremental improvements in management, nobody should be surprised when shark and ray species start disappearing on our watch. This study is a huge wake-up call! All countries and regional fisheries bodies that catch sharks and rays need to step up and take responsibility.”
Komodo dragon becomes endangered
The IUCN also warns that the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest living lizard, which is endemic to the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Motang, is now considered endangered on the Red List.
Around half of Komodo dragons are distributed in protected areas such as the famous Komodo National Park, which is a designated a Unesco World Heritage site. However, these fierce reptiles are under threat from rising global temperature, and subsequent sea levels are expected to reduce the reptile’s habitat by at least 30 per cent in the next 45 years.
In addition, Komodo dragons in Flores, which is outside the protected area, are also threatened by significant habitat loss due to ongoing human expansion and activities.